Agency watchdogs seek independence

The federal government's inspectors general could soon gain more power if Congress passes a new bill. With the demonstrated success of IGs during the past 25 years, some lawmakers think the proposed Improving Government Accountability Act could help IGs become even more successful in the next 25 years, said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), co-author of the bill.

The legislation proposes a number of changes to enhance the independence and effectiveness of IGs. One provision would create a seven-year term for IGs. Another would require the president to meet a stringent standard before firing an IG. The latter change would make it more difficult for IGs to be removed for political reasons and would give them the necessary job security to issue unpopular reports.

"We've all heard stories that the IG starts to do something, then he's fired," said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D- N.Y.). "We need to do what we can to give the IGs security to do their investigations."

The IG community supports the fixed-term proposal but would prefer that two more years be added to "span administrations and be more consistent with other terms of office across the government," said Russell George, IG for the Corporation for National and Community Service, an umbrella organization for several volunteer service groups.

An additional provision includes unifying two IG councils, both of which are headed by Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management. The new council members would have an annual budget of $750,000 to carry out their administrative functions.

Federal IGs generally embrace the council idea because it could lead to improvements in efficiency among the IGs and their staffs, George said. A unified council also could strengthen IGs' relationships with members of Congress. But many IGs would prefer that lawmakers appoint Johnson chairman of the new council "to preserve the existing link between the IGs and the administration," he said.

The bill offers IGs additional hiring flexibilities by creating a new personnel management system. Many IGs say they welcome hiring flexibilities. But granting them the authority to offer pay banding, merit-based pay, market-based pay and bonuses would be more helpful in recruiting and retaining skilled auditors, they say.

"As the role of the IG has expanded in both mission and complexity, it has become clear that additional personnel authority is needed," George said. Most IGs would prefer having authority to apply directly to the Office of Personnel Management to make hiring decisions.

The change, he said, would "greatly enhance our management of human capital and result in an even more highly skilled and effective workforce."

Lawmakers appeared open to suggestions from IGs to improve the bill. "You only have to look at today's deficit to know we must do everything we can to improve efficiency throughout the federal government," Cooper said.

"By strengthening the Inspector General Act," he said, "Congress can increase government accountability, while also reducing waste, fraud and abuse."

In 1976, a post-Watergate reform-minded climate paved the way for the enactment of the Inspector General Act.

The law mandated subpoena authority for gathering external information and documents for the IGs, direct access to all agency records and information, and a semiannual report to Congress about the activities of all IG offices.

THE IG PORTFOLIO

The mission of federal inspectors general is to work independently to uncover fraud, waste and abuse within the department that employs them and to report their findings to the department secretary and Congress.

There are 57 IGs, 29 of whom serve at the largest federal agencies as presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate.

Twenty-eight additional agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service and the National Science Foundation, have the authority

to appoint IGs without Senate confirmation.

Last year, federal IGs accounted for nearly $18 billion in potential savings for taxpayers. IG offices participated in 6,600 successful prosecutions, suspensions or debarments of more than 7,600 individuals and businesses. Their offices also were involved in more than 2,600 civil or personnel actions.

-- Margaret A.T. Reed

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